Embodying the Realm of God

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be pleasing to you, oh God. Amen.

Palm Sunday — this most historic and iconic of days on our Christian calendar — Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, whereas on the other side, we see Pontius Pilate coming in, in all of his regalia. The pomp and circumstance of it all, the contrast of the Roman Empire and the Realm of God makes me ponder how different many of our traditions are with respect to regalia and vestments and what we wear on a Sunday morning, ironically looking more regal than Jesus.

And yet if I were to meet Jesus in Jerusalem in that most holy of weeks, and if I were Pilate or a member of the privileged class here in my denomination of The Episcopal Church, I wonder what I would need to let go of. I think of how ensconced I am within the principalities of my own country and world, how I worship them in my existence as opposed to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus, of humility, coming in again on a donkey. The principalities of supremacy culture, patriarchy, purity culture, capitalism, white supremacy which more often than not, rule me, as opposed to the Gospel. It would bring me to a place of ultimate humility. As I make my way through Holy Week, how could I, how could we, let go of these principalities and allow ourselves to unravel?

They remind me of forms of confession; which should be made more real during Holy Week. The aspects of supremacy culture steal us away from humility because they demand that we worship them. And what do we think of when we think of a donkey? We think of an animal that is often castigated and relegated to laughter. What would it take us as people of faith, as Christians, to carry that same humility, of emulating the way of Jesus?

I remember when my spouse, Joanna, and I were serving as mission volunteers in Dodoma, Tanzania, from The Episcopal Church. We loved our experience there, serving around 17 months, and we taught in a place called Msalato Theological College and one of the many gifts was that the students were taught by an ecumenical staff, so we had folks, volunteers, missionaries from New Zealand, the United States of America, South Korea, England, Tanzania, Kenya, and other countries. We usually had staff meeting on Tuesdays and I vividly remember one particular moment of this staff meeting. Our financial administrator, Mr. Yusuf Mkunda, had just made a presentation on the finances of the college, and one of our staff members offered a critique that I think would have made Yusuf feel bad or taken aback, and yet I will never forget his response. He said, “Thank you for pointing that out to me. You’re right, I will make a correction and I will be better next time.” It was a level of humility and grace that I hadn’t seen before and in public. I wonder what I would have done, should I have been in the very same position.

It reminded me of Jesus, the posture of Jesus; how Jesus would be out in the world. So often, I find myself with a protective armor, ready to protect myself from life. And yet, here we see in Yusuf Mkunda something of Jesus of that openness and humility. This is what Jesus was doing when he decided to ride that donkey into the city of Jerusalem, show his vulnerable, humble side to the broader world. He was showing Jerusalem, he was showing Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire and the broader world, that real power is not about the principalities and powers of the world, or of showing or demonstrating yourself as a strong, strong person, so often as the world sees strength. But it is about something different, a posture of humility and openness.

I wonder also, you know as Episcopalians, the broader world or people who navigate our denominations as Christians. I wonder about our titles, the Most Reverend, the Right Reverend, Canon. Didn’t Jesus talk about these things? It doesn’t mean that we don’t live in a world that we don’t understand the realization of power differentials; but how can work where these long titles don’t become impediments to following Jesus?

Listen, I was born and bred in Massachusetts and now live in Connecticut. I know of the stiff upper lip that I have been socialized into as man. The patriarchal norms of purity culture, which would have men not show any type of emotion — sort of bury it deep down, and pretend that things don’t hurt me or us. And yet, the reality is that this type of socialization has demeaned boys and men, created us to be less than whom God has called us to be and doesn’t allow us to live into the fullness of our wholeness.

This too is the very opposite of the way of Jesus that we see on Palm Sunday. As God incarnate, Jesus also came as an open person, showing the way of love and power that was connected to it. In coming into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Realm of God is breaking into the world, challenging the Roman Empire. It is what the Anglican theologian, C.H. Dodd says, in what he calls “realized eschatology,” the Realm of God breaking into the world and confronting the ways of the Roman Empire, and maybe, friends, of our American Empire. For us, as we re-enact Palm Sunday, as we allow our whole selves to be caught up in this way of life, the way of Jesus confronts our own lives, our own way of being —maybe its rapacious capitalistic ways, the grind culture, supremacy culture — and says there is another way, a way of God’s love incarnate, of vulnerability and openness, of flourishing and grace.

My friends, we have the space and time during Holy Week to reflect, to confess our sins; the sins that maybe we have been socialized to believe in, the sins of the Empire. On this Palm Sunday, I wonder about the opportunity we have to confess the fact that in a deep way, maybe somatically, maybe through the structures of empire, we are complicit in worshipping the machinations of empire rather than living from the sacrament of our baptism, following the vulnerable, truth-telling ways of Jesus of Nazareth. Confession, letting go, untethering from the ways of empire are the ways in which we walk into salvation through Jesus Christ. But it also means that we have to be intentional with how we live and yes, the reflective time that we have every day.

More often than not, after lunch, around 2 or 2:30 p.m., I begin to get a little sleepy. It’s of course that period where my food has settled into my body, and my body is telling me that I need to rest for a little bit of time. The truth of the matter is that while my body is telling me what it needs, I am more tethered to being productive and getting the most work out of my body. The need to be productive invites me to disregard my body and push on. This may seem silly, but it is not, it is in fact what we call grind culture. For too long, in fact starting with the Puritans, we have cut off our bodies from our minds. As a broader American culture, we tend to place so much emphasis on our minds, on the intellect, and in the meantime, we have castigated the body, using scripture to demean it and cut it off from the rest of our minds. We know from the great Canadian physician, Gabor Mate that we cannot possibly do that, that our bodies and minds are intertwined.

Friends, let me confess, my body and mind are caught up in grind culture, with a false narrative that my worth is connected to my production. That if I grind enough in my work, my worth will be recognized. I know this, I confess it, and it flies in the face of our theology, of our embodiment, of being made in the image of the divine, of grace, of being God’s beloved. These two are principalities that the Apostle Paul speaks about in the Book of Romans, chapter 8, verses 38-39, “for neither death…nor principalities shall ever separate me from the love of God.”

My friends, as Jesus was making his way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was ushering in a new way of being, challenging the Empire, not only the physical Empire, but the ways in which Empire seeps into our ways of life. Even now, today, we are invited to remember our belovedness in God, confess and let go of the cloaks of empire that cover us, and again turn our posture out of our bodies, minds, and souls to the way of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the Good News that we have been given. This week, this Holy week, is our chance to once again get swept up in the beauty and grace of Jesus.

One of the many things that I love about my tradition in the Episcopal Church is the chance every Sunday, to participate liturgically in confession. A chance publicly to confess and share where I have fallen short, and then, thanks be to God, that I receive God’s absolution to then try again. This Holy Week, may we see how Jesus moved, how he challenged empire with his whole embodiment. May we confess the ways in which we are still tethered to principalities and powers, and with reflection, try to intentionally turn away from them and turn towards the way of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

Let us put our faith that the Holy Spirit will lead and guide us into all truth. Amen.